Battle of Bunker Hill: Part Six

Battle_Bunker_HillThe battle began at 3 p.m.  For that is when the redcoats began their march up the five hundred yard upgrade.

But as they did, General Howe already had made a big mistake: “At this point Howe neglected a method of attack which would  have made his victory immediate.  The rail fence and Stark’s defense upon the beach, were open to attack from the river.” [1]

Notice on the map what is identified as gondolas in the Charles River. Sure, they were scaring some soldiers trying to get across the Neck, but if they had been placed in the Mystic River instead, French says, “they could have raked the rail fence.”[2]  And that would have helped Howe achieve his goal of turning the American left flank.

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But that wasn’t the only mistake Howe made.  As soon as Howe’s redcoats began to march up the five hundred yard upgrade, another problem surfaced which led to another mistake.  The artillery fire in support of their march of the hill would not be possible. They had brought six pounder cannons over from Boston, but incredulously, the wrong size cannon balls had been sent.  They had been sent nine pound shot which would not work with six pounders.

When you have soldiers marching up a hill toward the enemy with virtually no cover, you want to bombard the enemy with your artillery, clearing the way for your infantry.  And if that wasn’t bad enough, they encountered marshy ground, which, of course, would be hard ground to move artillery pieces through.

What did Howe decide to do when these problems surfaced? He went ahead without the artillery.  No doubt Howe did this because he was already committed to the objective for the day, and was not going to wait for the right size cannon balls to be brought over from Boston.  He was also not willing to halt his men while some plan was devised to move the artillery through the marshy ground.  However, this would prove to be a strategic blunder, for Howe and his men would have clearly benefited from artillery support and suffered greatly without it.

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This wasn’t the only strategic blunder. Remember, when General Gage had his officers gathered for their council of war earlier that morning, Gage chose Howe’s plan to have this frontal assault. Truly, that was the first mistake.  Truth be told, General Henry Clinton had urged the better plan, a plan which, no doubt, would have succeeded. Clinton was for seizing Charlestown Neck and shutting off the way of escape.  Indeed, if they had shut off the way for the rebels to escape, shut the back door, so to speak, the British could have bombed the heights at their leisure.  It would have been the bloodless conquest from the British side that Clinton said it would be.

But Gage had no respect for the rebels and was determined to intimidate them with a large force of redcoats marching towards them. Gage and a good number of his generals believed that they could get back “the respect, and control, and subordination” of the colonials by showing them “that trained troops are invincible against any numbers or any position of undisciplined rabble.”[3]

Notice the egotistical pride in what Gage and many of his generals believed.  “Trained troops are invincible against any numbers or any position of undisciplined rabble.” These generals really thought that even though the rebels held the high ground, the British soldiers would win the day because they were invincible against any numbers or any position. It was their egotistical pride in themselves and their army and total disrespect for the rebel army which decided the British plan.

Here they were, without floating batteries in the Mystic River to rake the rail fence, and six pound cannons with nine pound shot, and not enough sense to realize this was not going to turn out good.

With this being the case, General Howe was determined to press ahead.  After all, it was his plan.  Pressing ahead meant his soldiers would be marching up that hill without the benefit of artillery support, and that would put them in mortal danger: “At first, says tradition, a few Americans fired when the troops came in range, but Prescott and his officers, leaping upon the parapet of the redoubt, kicked up the muzzles of the guns. If the men would but obey him, Prescott told them, not a British soldier would get within the redoubt.”[4]

Now, that was an encouraging thing to say, but here came 1200 redcoats under the command of General Pigot, heading for the redoubt and the breastwork. All of them had muskets with bayonets.  All of them were coming together in unison marching up the hill in formation.  In one respect, it certainly was a foolish thing to do, but in another respect, they represented power which could be unleashed 1200-fold.   These were men who had been trained to hold their position no matter what.  They would not break and run.  They would keep coming and coming and coming. “General Howe, in the meantime, led the right wing against the rail fence. The light infantry moved along the shore of the Mystic River, to turn the extreme left of the American line, while the grenadiers advanced directly in front (of the rail fence)” [5]

“At the rail fence the men were likewise prevented from firing, Putnam threatening to cut down any who disobeyed. They were ordered not to shoot until the regulars passed a stake which Stark set up for a mark.” [6]

All the Americans at the rail fence watched that stake and watched Howe’s division come closer and closer.  For the moment, there was just the sound the redcoats marching.  Other than that sound, all was quiet.  Everyone was waiting, waiting for the redcoats to reach that stake, waiting for the first shot to be fired.

So death waited. But it didn’t wait very long, for the mortal danger the regulars were in as they marched up the hill toward the redoubt, the breastwork and the rail fence quickly became death on a large scale.

Think of yourself as one of those British regulars marching up that hill.  You are in the open, where as soon as you get in range, someone up on that hill, someone you never met, is going to aim their rifle or musket at your broad target and  fire.  They weren’t firing yet, but you knew it was going to happen.  Your only hope was that they would miss, and yet you continued forward.

Your senses are picking up every little thing, the swish of the tall grass against your legs, the sound of burning wood crackling.  Charlestown was on fire and burning to your left.  Then there was the weight of your pack, for each of the British regulars were required to carry a hundred pound pack.

And there was also the heat, for this would prove to be one of the hottest days of that summer.

Despite all that you sensed, and all that you were thinking, you kept going forward toward the American line.  You looked at the American forces waiting for you, and you wondered, “Are we close enough yet?  Is it time to fire? And how bad is this going to be?  How many of us will die this day?  Will I be one of them?  Will the man on my right be dead ten minutes from now?”

Allen French says: “At last the troops were near enough.  They had themselves been firing for some time, volleying as they advanced, but firing too high.

Now, as they as they reached a line some eight or ten rods from the redoubt (about 50 yards), Prescott gave the word to fire, and to continue firing.  The discharge from the redoubt was close, deadly and incessant, while at the rail fence the reception of the British was even more fatal.” [7]  It must have seemed like all Hell was breaking lose, hundreds of bullets whizzing by, soldiers dropping all around you. “For a few minutes the regulars held their ground, returning the fire as best they might, yet decimated by the American bullets, and seeing their officers falling all about them.  There was no hope to advance  and sullenly they withdrew. But the battle was not yet won.  The slaughter among the officers was frightful, yet the leaders were uninjured.”[8]

In his book, Richard Frothingham tells what happened in the American lines after that first assault was turned back:  “And now moments of joy succeeded the long hours of toil, anxiety, and peril.  The American volunteer saw the veterans of England fly before his fire, and felt a new confidence in himself.  The result was obtained, too, with but little loss on his side.

Colonel Prescott mingled freely among his troops, praised their good conduct, and congratulated them on their success.  He felt confident that another attack would soon be made, and he renewed his caution to reserve the fire until he gave the command.” [9]

It was a great moment for the Americans.  I time to rejoice that they withstood the first assault.           

[1] Ibid.

[2] Ibid., p. 71

[3] John Shy, “Thomas Gage: Weak Link of Empire,” in George A. Billias, ed. George Washington’s Opponents (New York, NY: William Morrow & Company, Inc, 1969) p. 30.

[4] Allen French, The Siege of Boston, p. 72

[5] Richard Frothingham, History of the Siege of Boston, And of the Battles of Lexington, Concord and Bunker Hill p. 141.

[6] Allen French, The Siege of Boston p. 72.

[7] Allen French, The Siege of  Boston, p. 72.

[8] Allen French, The Siege of Boston, p. 72.

[9] Richard Frothingham, History of the Siege of Boston, And of the Battles of Lexington, Concord and Bunker Hill p. 142.

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Bob Wittstruck was a pastor for 33 years, was the associate director of the Black Hills Creation Science Association, and is a supporter of both Christian schooling and home schooling. His latest book, The Forgotten Factor of History God Rules, is being printed in February or March of 2016. His email address is [email protected]
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